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The Terrors Of Politics Post by :davidcrowton Category :Essays Author :Robert Lynd Date :October 2011 Read :2420

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The Terrors Of Politics

There is a good deal to be said for Mr Lloyd George's complaint against the world for its treatment of politicians. In one sense, it may be better to throw a brick at a politician than to trust him. It encourages the others. Unhappily, it is a habit that, once acquired, is by no means easy to discontinue. One throws one's first brick as a public duty; before one has got through one's first cart-load, however, one is throwing for the sheer exhilaration of the thing. It is difficult, for instance, to believe that if Mr Leo Maxse went to Paradise itself, he would be able to forget his cunning with the words "swindlers," "rogues," and "cabals"; one feels sure that he would discover some angels requiring to be denounced for singing "cocoa" hymns, and some committee of the saints which it was necessary to arraign as Foozle & Co. The popularity of Mr Maxse's redundant abuse in The National Review seems to me to be one of the most significant phenomena of the day. It is a symptom of the reviving taste for looking on one's political opponent not only as a public, but as a private, villain. There was probably never a time when it was a more popular amusement, both in print and at the dinner table, to give a twist of criminality to the portraiture of political enemies. When Daniel O'Connell denounced Disraeli as "the heir-at-law of the blasphemous thief who died on the cross," he was abusing him, not for his home life, but as a public figure. Similarly, when Sir William Harcourt described Mr Chamberlain as "a serpent gnawing a file," he said nothing which would make even the most proper lady shrink from bowing to Mr Chamberlain in the street. The modern sort of nomenclature, however, has gone beyond this. It is a constant suggestion that Cabinets are recruited from Pentonville and Wormwood Scrubs. One would hardly be surprised, on meeting a Prime Minister nowadays, to find that he had the bristly chin and the club of Bill Sikes. As for the rank and file of Ministers, one does not insult Bill Sikes by comparing them to him. One thinks of them rather as on the level with racecourse sneak-thieves and the bullies of disorderly houses. Decidedly, they are not persons to take tea with.

Calumny, of course, is as old as Adam--or, at least, as Joseph--and one remembers that even Mr Gladstone was accused of the vulgarest immorality till a journalist tracked him down and discovered that it was rescue work, and not the deadly sin with the largest circulation, which was his private hobby. That sort of libel no man can escape who risks remaining alive. Perhaps we should come to hate our public men as the Athenians came to hate Aristides if we could find nothing evil to think about them. What the politician of the present day has to fear is not an occasional high tide of calumny, or even a volley of the old-fashioned abusive epithets, which are, so to speak, all in the day's play. It is rather the million-eyed beast of suspicion which democracies every now and then take to their bosoms as a pet. Often it seems a noble beast, for it is impossible to be suspicious all the time without sometimes suspecting the truth. Its food, however, is neither primarily truth nor primarily falsehood; it thrives on both indifferently. And one foresees that, during the transition stage between the break-up of the old manners of servility and the inauguration of the new manners of service, this beast is going to be more voracious than ever. This may from some points of view be a good thing. It will be an announcement, at least, of new forces struggling to become politically articulate. On the other hand from the politician's point of view, it will be not only deplorable, but terrifying. It will be worse than having to fight wild beasts in the arena. Politics, it is safe to prophesy, will before long call for as cool a nerve, as determined a heroism, as aviation.

It may be that things have always been like this--that base motives have been imputed to politicians ever since politics began--that one's political enemies always charged one with a dishonest greed for the spoils of office and all the rest of it. But the terror of the politics of the future is likely to be, not that one will be abused by one's enemies, but that one will be abused by one's friends. That is the tendency in a democracy which has not yet found itself. It is a tendency which one sees occasionally at work to-day at labour conventions. The unofficial leaders denounce the official leaders; the official leaders retort in kind; and the hosts of Labour set out to face the enemy tugging at each other's ears. There is no job on earth less enviable than the job of a Labour leader. The Tory and Radical leaders are supported at least in public by their respective parties; but the Labour leader at home among his followers is commonly regarded as a cross between a skunk and a whited sepulchre. As a rule, it may be, he deserves all he gets, but the point is that he would get it just the same whether he deserved it or not. The light that beats upon a Labour M.P.'s seat on the platform is a thousand times fiercer and more devouring than any that ever beat upon a throne. This partly arises from the fact that the working classes are less practised than others in concealing what passes through their minds. If they suspect the worst they say so instead of passing a vote of thanks to the object of their suspicions. Further, they are still fresh enough to politics to be very exacting in their demands upon politicians. Other people have got accustomed to the idea that lawyers, whether Liberal or Tory, do not go into the House of Commons, as the Americans say, for their health. They have settled down comfortably to regard politics as a field of personal ambition even more than a field of public service. No doubt the two aims are, to a great extent, compatible, but, even so, no one expects the ordinary party politician to have the faith that goes to the stake for a conviction. Labour, on the other hand, in so far as it is articulate, does demand faith of this kind from its leaders. If they do not possess it already it is prepared to thump it into them with a big stick.

The difficulty is to retain this faith after one has been, as it were, inside politics. One goes into politics believing in the faith that will remove mountains: one remains in politics believing in the machine that will remove mole-hills. It is only the rare politician who does not ultimately succumb to the fatal fascination of the machine. It may be the party machine or the Parliamentary machine or the administrative machine. In any case, and to whatever party he belongs, he soon comes to take it for granted, not that the machine must be made to do what the people want, but that the people must learn to be patient, even to the point of reverence, with the machine, and must be careful to keep it supplied, not with the vinegar of criticism, but with the oil of agreement, which alone enables its wheels to run smoothly. Democracy has again and again had to rise up and smash its machines, just because they had become idols in this way. No doubt, even were Socialism in full swing, the idolatry of machinery would still, to some extent, continue, and new machines would constantly have to be invented to take the place of the old as soon as the latter began to acquire this pseudo-religious sanction. There will probably still also be people who will go about wanting to destroy machinery from a rather illogical idea that anything which is even capable of being turned into an idol must be evil. The politicians and the anti-politicians will always stand to each other in the relation of priests and iconoclasts. "Priests of machinery," indeed, would be a much more realistic description of most politicians than Mr Lloyd George's phrase, "priests of humanity."

There you have the politician's doom. There you have the real terror for the good man going into politics. He dreads not that he will be called names so much as that he will deserve them. Office, he knows, is as perilous a gift as riches, and the temptation to be a tyrant, if it is only in a committee room down a side street, has destroyed men who stood out like heroes against drink and the flesh and gold. The House of Commons could easily drift into becoming the house of the six hundred tyrants, if only the public would permit it. There is no amulet against the despotism of politicians except living opinions among the people. It would be foolish, however, merely because politicians are in danger of setting themselves up as tyrants, to propose to exterminate them. They can, if taken in time and domesticated, be made at least as useful as the horse and the cow. Indeed, so long as they are content to be regarded merely as our poor brothers, they can be as useful as any other human beings almost, except the saints. But they must demand no sacrosanctity for their position. At present, when they denounce people for abusing them, they are as often as not angry merely at being criticised. They are too fond of thinking that it is the chief function of the electors to pass votes of confidence in them. That is why, heartily as I love politicians, I would keep them on a chain. But I would not throw stones at them in their misery. I would even feed the brutes.


(The end)
Robert Lynd's essay: Terrors Of Politics

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